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Visual art moves from modernism to postmodernism to … what?


The past 150 years have witnessed fast, vast and astonishing changes in the way human beings occupy the planet. It’s hardly surprising that the visual arts have also seen a succession of movements, schools, styles and philosophies. Modernism, postmodernism and now what … post-postmodernism? Whatever you label them, these movements represent immense shifts in the ways artists experience the world and create an aesthetic.

Take modern art. It seems as if the term should mean contemporary art, the art of the modern day. But to art historians, “modern” is a distinct era, running roughly from the 1860s to the 1970s. The work of early modernists was inspired by forces sweeping through all aspects of western society: industrialization, urbanization and secularism profoundly changed the way artists perceived the world.

Lines begin to take precedence over form and color in Mondrian’s tree series. As his style evolved from postimpressionism to pure abstraction, his attitude toward nature changed. Mondrian came to find trees so disturbing that, seated at a restaurant table by a window with a view of them, he asked to change places.

The European framework of art patronage shifted from commissions by the aristocracy and the church to a “free” market, and the popularity of photography liberated painters from the task of realistically depicting their subjects. Both trends gave artists the freedom to experiment and to be acutely aware of their forms, materials and processes. The aesthetic that they developed was defined by self-consciousness and the notion of art for art’s sake.

Breakthroughs in psychology and science also fueled the modernist aesthetic. Einstein’s theory of relativity, Freud’s writings on the unconscious and world-changing technological inventions led to artists’ exploration of multiple viewpoints (cubism), the imagery of dreams and the impulses of the unconscious mind (surrealism), the speed and energy of the automotive age (futurism) and a direct emotional response to their subjects (expressionism).

The modernist aesthetic also reflects the far reaches of colonialism and the introduction of Asian, African, Latin American and Oceanic art to western eyes. A pivotal work from the early modern era is Pablo Picasso’s oil painting, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). The subject matter, five naked prostitutes in a Barcelona brothel, shocked contemporary viewers. So did the work’s tilted planes and fractured and “primitive” forms. All reveal a host of influences, from Einstein to Cézanne to African tribal masks.

The cubism of Picasso and Georges Braque exerted a major influence over another famous modernist, Piet Mondrian. Mondrian’s Apple Tree in Bloom (1912) experiments with faceting and abstraction: trunks, branches and leaves are broken down into a network of vertical, horizontal and curving lines. His later paintings are “pure” geometric abstractions: employing a reduced palette and straight lines, squares and grids, they anticipate the hard-edge and minimalist schools of late modernist art.

In the public mind, abstraction may be 20th-century art’s most notable invention. But equally influential was Marcel Duchamp’s introduction of the “found object” or readymade. His groundbreaking work, Fountain (1917), which consists of a urinal tipped on its back and signed “R.Mutt,” exemplifies his philosophy that art is anything an artist designates as art. Duchamp opened the way for neo-dadaism, pop art and conceptualism – for Robert Rauschenberg’s Bed (1955), Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes and Joseph Beuys’ installations and performances – and he exerts a powerful influence on the evolving aesthetic of our own troubled age.

A Damien Hirst shark floating in a tank of formaldehyde, a Jennie Holzer “truism” posted on a billboard in Times Square, a Thomas Ruff digital photograph of an urban forest – how can these diverse works reflect the same postmodern aesthetic?

Perhaps they can’t. Distinct as postmodern art is from modern art, it is marked by pluralism, by concurrent rather than successive styles, concerns and media. Since its emergence in the early ’70s, postmodern art has attacked modern art’s emphasis on formalism and instead embraced narrative content, social commentary and cultural theory. Postmodern artists also challenged modernist ideas about originality, authorial voice and avant-gardism. Still, like modernism, postmodernism was inspired by seismic social and scientific shifts. Artists responded to the erosion of national boundaries by mass media and multinational corporations, the ascendancy of electronic and digital technologies and the failures of an industrial notion of “progress.”

Spiral Jetty
Robert Smithson’s emblematic earthwork, Spiral Jetty, is a massive 1,500-foot-long coil made of black basalt rocks extending into Utah’s Great Salt Lake. Mark Tansey painted Purity Test (1982) in response to Smithson’s work. He leaves it up to the group in the foreground to judge the purity and artistic merit of the iconic installation.

Postmodern art often aims to dissolve the line between high and low culture. Jeff Koons’s kitsch ceramic sculptureMichael Jackson and Bubbles(1988) and Takashi Murakami’sPanda (2003), a manga-like fiberglass panda standing on a Luis Vuitton trunk, exemplify the appropriation of images, styles and strategies from popular culture. They also reveal postmodern art’s cheery embrace of late-capitalist consumerism.

Ironically, postmodern art is seen to be influenced by conceptualism, feminism and cultural theory; it is idea-driven and often aims to deconstruct the politics of representation and the biases of gender, culture, race and sexual orientation. “Cultural hybridity,” reflecting globalization, mass migration and displacement, is an important feature of the postmodern aesthetic. A positive aspect of postmodernism’s postcolonial condition is that artists in Asia, Africa and Latin America have rapidly emerged onto the world scene. Their absorption into the art market and their conversion into manufacturers of cultural products have been equally rapid.

Interior Scroll
During her iconic performance Interior Scroll(1975), Carolee Schneemann stood naked on a table and painted her body with mud. Then she slowly withdrew a long paper scroll inscribed with her meditations about the vagina from her own genitals and read it aloud to the audience.
carolee schneemann – interior scroll (1975) – photo collage with text: beet juice, urine and coffee on photographic print; 72w x 48h inches.

Over the past few decades, postmodernism has been particularly well served by photography, video and other media-based art forms. A stellar example is the creative practice of Jeff Wall, whose staged photographs are charged with cultural, social and political references. In the late ’70s Wall borrowed a significant advertising form – large-scale, backlit, photographic transparencies in aluminum frames – for his narrative pictures. Inspiring other postmodern artists working in photo-based media, his photographs involve many of the techniques and strategies of commercial moviemaking: creating storyboards, scouting locations, building sets, hiring makeup artists and casting and directing actors.

Far from the Bohemian vision of a starving artist working alone in an unheated garret, leading contemporary artists (like Koons, Murakami, Zhang Yuan or Olafur Eliasson) often work out of factory-like studios and employ large numbers of assistants. Large-scale manufacture, extreme technical proficiency and a businesslike approach to image-making have all contributed defining aspects to a postmodern aesthetic. Strangely, the movement’s early concerns with social and environmental issues, including overconsumption, seem to have been sidelined.

The Body
bernardo rivavelarde, homodigitalis (the body), 2003. model: nacho duarte

Like most other late-capitalist enterprises, much postmodern art production is not sustainable in the long term. In opposition to the postmodern trend toward large, glossy and expensive production, many emerging and established artists are working with found and salvaged materials, discarded objects and even detritus in what could be seen as a “shabby” or “garbage” aesthetic. Although hardly a new strategy – much of what defines the new aesthetic has been developing for years – it draws attention to everyday waste and overconsumption.

British artist John Isaacs employs not scrap lumber or old paint cans, but wax and epoxy resin to create highly realistic sculptures. Often grisly and unsettling, they reflect the profound anxieties of our age. In another approach, artists are embracing a modest scale and old-fashioned media, such as drawing, painting, collage and fiber. Their humble, handmade creations suggest the emergence of a “kitchen table” sensibility. Raymond Pettibon, for example, is acclaimed for his cartoon-like ink drawings on paper, which are filled with social and political observations and quotes from literature and popular culture.

Ghada Amer represents a neo-feminist sensibility. Her work, which often consists of embroidered paintings, sculptures and installations, addresses the condition of women, including their sexuality and desire. Her canvases, their images and text embroidered in colored threads, also reveal the kind of gestural, abstract-expressionist painting that postmodernists long ago abandoned. This suggests that the individual “mark” is also part of the new aesthetic.

Everyone's talking about Jesus
john isaacs, everyone’s talking about jesus, 2005 – courtesy: aeroplastics contemporary, brussels

Rirkrit Tiravanija attempts to change the emphasis in art from the making of objects and their viewing within an institution to socializing and the sharing of experiences. These experiences often revolve around food, which the artist prepares and serves to his audiences – who are also participants in the creation of his art.

Although representative of an emerging aesthetic, these artists are already well known. Working outside the purview of curators and collectors, however, are legions of street artists whose impact is only now being felt. These are the artists whose political, social and environmental beliefs are temporarily communicated in alleys, vacant lots and abandoned telephone booths – through graffiti murals, urban “interventions,” posters, stickers … and drawings dropped into the gutter. Again their strategies aren’t new, but they’ve taken on a new urgency in light of today’s economic and environmental crises.

The art market has been as voracious and as flawed as any other aspect of post-industrial capitalism and has co-opted even the most conceptual and anti-commercial works and movements. It’s obvious, for example, that Banksy’s street art loses its impact and credibility when displayed in an art gallery. If the new aesthetic is worth its apocalyptic salt, it will resist. It will.

Robin Laurence is a writer, critic and curator based in Vancouver. She is a Contributing Editor at Canadian Art and Border Crossingsmagazines and covers visual arts for Vancouver’s The Georgia Straight.[cherry_banner image=”5429″ title=”Adbusters #83″ url=”″ template=”issue.tmpl”]A New Aesthetic [/cherry_banner]